A dusty red road through the hills – Rodalquilar

The township of Rodalquilar, in the Cabo de Gata Natural Park, was born of a gold rush. When the mines were opened there was a belief that the volcanic landscape within which the town was built would give up great riches. They were linked by wide, dusty roads that were cut through the low mountains, and at their peak more than a thousand miners and their families called this place home.

The dream lasted until the 1960s, when the mines were abandoned. The population of the township fell to a couple of hundred, and today it is still possible to walk through whole neighbourhoods of crumbling cottages, social halls, schools and more that have been left to the mercy of the elements.

When we arrived, the town appeared to house a mix of hippies and artists, second homes and holiday rentals, close to the sea but not on the beach. That the town existed in the first place was because of the mines, and once the miners had gone it became a place in search of purpose. But despite the harsh environment, Rodalquilar has had a second life. It offers a space for those who want something different, whether in their choice of home or holiday destination. It has found its niche and survives, even thrives, not despite its location but perhaps even because of it, and the mix of creativity and slow, sun-baked decay that we discovered was appealing.

Our walk took us through the town and up the winding track that led past the remnants of the gold mine. It was Easter, but the sun was high in the sky and in this part of the world – Europe’s only desert – what plant life there is remains squat and low to the ground. Any shade we could find came from the abandoned buildings or the cuttings through which the unpaved road traverses the Sierra de Cabo de Gata. The huge trucks and other heavy vehicles that made use of these roads are long gone, and they have become instead the preserve of hikers and mountain bikers, and the occasional car, as families on day trips from less inhospitable places head for the hills in search of legends and stories.

Up where the mountain road reaches a high valley, we discovered more abandoned mine buildings. These had been closed in 1936 with the start of the Spanish Civil War, as the hills became a place of hideaways and secret communication trails along the narrow valleys and over the passes. The track was a deep red by now, flanked by aloe vera plants and the first of the cabbage fields that stretched out across the plateau. It felt like the Wild West of a child’s imagination, a feeling that became more concrete as the dusty red road led us between prickly plants to yet another abandoned building.

This was the Cortijo de Fraile, the farmhouse of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding and the destination for most of those family saloons making their bumpy journey along the old miner’s road. Lorca’s play was based on a true story of the farmhouse, of a young bride-to-be running away with her cousin only to meet her groom’s brother at the crossroads where he gunned them down. This was 1928, and although the cousin died of his gunshot wounds, the young woman survived and continued to live in a nearby village until the 1990s. She never did, it seems, get married.

Perhaps because of this tragic tale the farmhouse was abandoned, slowly collapsing in on itself over the decades, but not completely. And there remained another twist in the tale, as it was used as an atmospheric backdrop in films such as A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, immortalised on cinema screens as it had been previously on the stages where Lorca’s play was performed. We joined the Spanish families as they picked their way around the abandoned buildings, stopping for lunch in the only place that offered a hint of shade; the farmhouse’s old water tank. 

Our route back to Rodalquilar dropped off the main mining road, following instead what looked like animal trails through the hills and along a series of dry river beds. Signposts signalled the presence of other farmhouses, tucked away in the folds in the earth. In the distance, the sea shimmered in the springtime heat. Later that afternoon we would follow another dusty track, not into the hills this time but down to the water’s edge, to cool off between the gentle waves, our heads full of the stories of the hills that rose up behind us, and the people who had once called this toughest of landscapes home. 

36°51’53.9″N 2°04’28.9″W
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton